What Congress can't get, the people can: Trump documents are damning and there are more to come

Throughout the impeachment hearings, members of Congress have decried that the Trump administration has not turned over a “single document” in response to the inquiry. The administration’s stonewall has been impenetrable. Or at least it was until Nov. 22 when, thanks to a federal district court order, the State Department was forced to release documents — not to Congress, but to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

That night, my organization, American Oversight, received nearly 100 pages of records. The documents show a clear paper trail from Rudy Giuliani to the Oval Office to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to facilitate the smear campaign against U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. While the president and Republicans in Congress have tried to lay the entire scheme at Giuliani’s feet, now we have black and white evidence showing Giuliani used the power of the presidency to execute the campaign.

This is a critical moment for two reasons. First, that American Oversight has been able to force the administration to release documents — and will continue to push for additional records — shows conclusively why the administration’s conduct qualifies as obstruction. If we as regular citizens got the records, there is no legal justification for withholding them from Congress, which is constitutionally entitled to this information. It now appears the sole reason the president has directed agencies and government officials to withhold documents is to impede the investigation into presidential abuses of power. Both Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonPoll finds Biden with narrow lead over Trump in Missouri Trump's mark on federal courts could last decades Obama, Clinton join virtual celebration for Negro Leagues MORE faced articles of impeachment for obstructing Congress by withholding information without a legal basis. Why does Trump believe obstruction will be any more effective for him than it was for his predecessors?

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Second, this production is just the first of what will be many, rolling releases in the months to come. The evidence against the president and his allies will only get more voluminous and, it appears, more damning.

When members of the House and Senate woke up after two weeks of public hearings, it may have felt like the evidence was largely settled. That’s not the case. With continual FOIA releases, it’s likely there are other shoes yet to drop.

As members grapple with votes on articles of impeachment and trial, they should consider that evidence is probably going to keep coming out well into 2020. Even if they can justify a “no” vote today despite the evidence, that vote may look increasingly craven as time goes on.

Notwithstanding the extraordinary mountain of evidence already available against the president, there are open questions we’re still pursuing. Some of the FOIA requests we have pending include: requests with the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Defense about the decision to withhold aid from Ukraine; with the Department of Justice based on the president’s suggestion that Attorney General William BarrBill BarrDemocrat asks Barr to preserve any records tied to environmental hacking probe Justice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report Ousted Manhattan US Attorney Berman to testify before House next week MORE was one of his point people on these issues; with the Department of Energy about former Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryTexas cities say state is making pandemic worse Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Ernest Moniz Trump issues executive order to protect power grid from attack MORE’s role as one of the “three amigos”; and of course, more requests to Secretary Pompeo and the State Department.

According to the deposition testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent, the State Department has collected documents about the Ukraine scandal but is refusing to turn them over. Ambassador to the EU Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandTop Democrat slams Trump's new EU envoy: Not 'a political donor's part-time job' Trump names new EU envoy, filling post left vacant by impeachment witness Sondland Ocasio-Cortez: Republicans are prioritizing big chains in coronavirus relief  MORE testified that there were documents he was not allowed to access, which would have helped him recollect details. The Department of Defense told Congress that it, too, was collecting documents but was withholding them pursuant to the White House’s direction. That means there are vast repositories of evidence ready and available to be released under FOIA and that the American people are entitled to see.

The first document release already connected the president to the smear campaign against Ambassador Yovanovitch. Just as it’s clear why Secretary Pompeo tried to keep these documents from the public, it’s obvious that this is just the beginning. The stone wall is cracking.

Austin Evers is the executive director of American Oversight (@weareoversight), a group that monitors the Trump administration, aiming to hold it accountable and ensure a transparent and ethical government. Evers served most recently as senior counsel in the Department of State for oversight and transparency matters.